Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2007, page 45

Arab-American Activism

Helen Thomas Delivers Greenlee School First Amendment Day Address

Helen Thomas signs her book at Iowa State University (Photo M. Gillespie).

ARAB-AMERICAN journalist Helen Thomas, one of a few well-known and widely respected voices in American corporate media, delivered the keynote address at the Iowa State University (ISU) Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication’s First Amendment Day celebration. The dean of the White House press corps spoke in Ames April 19, the day after former President Jimmy Carter appeared in Iowa City to discuss his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

“I think Carter’s very brave to go up against a lot of opposition,” Thomas told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. “I don’t know if it’s going to open up a debate, but I do think the American people ought to know that there is a Palestinian side of the question also, and that has never been really exposed.”

Thomas, now a Hearst Newspapers columnist, is the author of four books, including Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public andThanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House.

“It should be mandatory that every president would read the Constitution,” said Thomas, noting that the First Amendment is the basis of all our freedoms.

“Too many swear to uphold the Constitution and then make end runs around it,” she said. “This administration in particular has chipped away at the Bill of Rights while the people were numbed by the trauma of 9/11, and we let them get away with it. Not only the people at large but the Congress has been willing to abridge our rights through the PATRIOT Act, a terrific infringement of our privacy.

“We have a president who was determined to go to war against Iraq, but who to this day cannot explain why. But whatever the reason, it’s obvious that it’s unacceptable,” said Thomas. There were “no weapons of mass destruction, no threats from a Third World country against the world’s only military superpower, and no ties to the al-Qaeda terrorists, which the president admits himself.

“So, why have we been there for four years killing and being killed?” asked Thomas, noting that the neoconservatives who planned the war are “fading into the woodwork and blaming bad leadership from the White House.

“Meanwhile,” she continued, “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead, 3,000-plus Americans, thousands wounded, and a country destroyed, which once had, believe it or not, clean water, electricity, and some promise of survival.”

Thomas said she has never known a time when the country was so rudderless, so lacking in vision and direction, so helpless in the face of injustice.

“You have to ask, ”˜Who are we, and where are we going?’” she said. “For our current deeds, we are despised in the world....We have kept thousands in prison, tortured them under interrogation, sent them to secret prisons, held them in limbo for years at Guantanamo Bay and at disgraceful prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan—prisoners who have no contact with their families, no charges, no trials, no convictions, no due process. This war is illegal, immoral, and unconscionable—wrong, wrong in every sense,” said Thomas to the applause of an audience that filled the Great Hall of ISU’s Memorial Union to capacity.

“To start a new century with a war, what can young people think?” asked Thomas. “What’s in store for them? What a way to go! The president struck a match across the Middle East, inflaming the region. Now all the Arab nations want to go nuke. Never the words peace or disarmament are spoken. Truth took a holiday.”

After castigating the Bush administration, Thomas relieved the tensions attending the grim realities of war by regaling her audience with anecdotes about the human foibles of various world leaders she has covered during her career as a journalist.

The event was sponsored by the Greenlee Excellence Fund, the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Lee Enterprises, the Iowa State Daily and the Committee on Lectures.

Michael Gillespie